Black Cat Strut (Improv)

The black cat strut is not my own activity. It comes from 88 Piano Keys. My students enjoyed it so much this year, I wanted to remember it, plus a few notes from my experience.

  • As she recommends, I didn’t show my students anything. It was entirely done by memory and ear.
  • For the youngest students, you can give them just three melody notes: C, D, E.
  • More advanced students can handle all the ones she mentions in the instructions.
  • If the student hasn’t learned dotted quarter note rhythms yet, just explain the left hand pattern as a dotted half note and a quarter note.
  • I don’t have iRealPro, so I didn’t use her recorded drum beat. It’s a great improv even without it.

 

Primary Chord Drill

This hardly counts as a game in and of itself, but I made it up this week to use in conjunction with Skeleton, Human or Monster? Most of my students were drilling note names, but several are beyond needing that so we drilled this instead. You could use it with anything in my How to Drill Anything series.

What You Need:

  • Notecards that have the keys you want to practice
    • I always start with C major, G major, D major, and F major. If they’re doing well on those, then expand to A major, E major, B-flat major, and E-flat major.
    • You can use generic note name cards, or write it out on index cards. It won’t take more than 30 seconds to create.
  • Blank Die
    • These things cost 29 cents at my local teacher supply store and are invaluable.
    • On the die, use a sharpie marker to write on the six sides: I, IV, IV, V, V, and *

Setup:

  • None

How to Drill:

  • Student draws a card. That determines the key signature.
  • Student rolls the die. That determines which chord they need to name in that key signature.
    • For example: in the key of C major, the IV is F major, in D major, the V chord is A major.
    • The asterisk can change meaning depending on the student.
      • If the student’s doing well, use it to call out another chord, such as the vi chord or the iii chord.
      •  If the student’s struggling with the concept, use it to mean roll again.

Primary Chord Drill

The Improv Duet Game

Most of the kids love improv, and this activity has the advantage of developing their sense of beat and musicality at the same time.

What You Need:

  • A spinner (or 2 dice if you prefer)
  • A blank piece of paper
  • Coin for tossing (optional)

Setup:

  • If you are using a spinner, place it in the center of your page and section off the paper (see the picture). In each section, write one way to change up an improv. For example, change dynamic, change accompaniment pattern, change articulation, change key signature, change tempo, teacher’s choice, student’s choice, spin again, etc.
  • If you are using dice, write down the numbers 2-12 and assign each number one of the ways to change up an improv.

How to Play:

  • Explain that this improv game is going to use a chord progression: I – IV – V  – I if the student’s had enough music theory to understand that or Cmaj – Fmaj – Gmaj – Cmaj if they haven’t. Each chord is going to get one full measure, so the improv will be a four measure improv. Play each of those block chords as whole notes for the student. That is how long they have to create an improvised melody and return to the home note (or tonic).
  • To start with the most basic improv, the teacher will play those four measures while the student improvises a melody. You can do this several times if the student needs help understanding when to wrap up the melody.
  • After that it is time to mix things up. Have the student spin the spinner or roll the dice. Whereever they land, they need to follow those instructions (change the dynamic, tempo, etc.). If they land on change the accompaniment, move out of block chords into some other pattern, like arpeggios, oom-pa, etc., but keep the chord progression the same.
  • Repeat as many times as you have time for.
    • Depending on the level of the student, you can either make each new spin a fresh improv or you can make the changes cumulative so that you end up playing, for example, in D major, presto, and fortissimo all at the same time.
    • Also depending on the level of the student, you can flip the coin each time to determine who is on melody and who is doing the accompaniment.

20180921_080318

 

Summertime Improv

Summertime Piano Improv

School’s out here, and we needed an absolutely no prep work activity.

What You Need:

  • Paper
  • Writing Utensil

Setup:

  • None

How to Play:

  • First, brainstorm about a few things that are fun to do in the summer. Swimming, climbing trees, jumping on a trampoline, etc., are all great choices.
  • When you’ve chosen an activity, ask the student questions and write down answers until you have a little story. For example, several of my students chose swimming:
    • How do you like to enter the pool? One toe at a time or cannonball? How would we portray that through music? Would it be slow or fast? Loud or soft? One gentle note at a time or an accented splat on the keys?
    • Once you are in the pool, what do you like to do? Swim laps? Dive deep? What is going to happen to the music?
    • Are there other people in pool? Will there be any splashing? Marco Polo? Flips upside down?
    • How does it end? Does everyone quietly and calmly dry off and go inside? Or is there one final cannonball at the end?
  • Once you have a sequence written down and the student understands what it means in musical terms, it’s time to play. I suggest playing in C major. Start out with a left hand pattern that matches the theme as best you can. Gently lapping water is fairly easy for swimming. Other subjects might not have such an obvious pattern, but that’s okay.
  • After listening to your introduction, the student should start improvising. Some of them will naturally move through the sequence on their own. Others you will have to tell when to move on to the next step and when to wrap it up.
  • Afterwards, talk about what was good about it and what could be added on a second run. For example, could they use more of the keyboard? Could the dynamic contrast be more dramatic? Could they add another sequence into their story? Play it again if you have time.

Question and Answer Improv

Some of my students create beautiful melodies by instinct. Most don’t. I’ve been stymied in my attempts to teach them improv, not because they can’t grasp what the left hand needs to do, but because they can’t grasp what the right hand needs to do. That was the part I thought would be obvious, but I was wrong. I’ve been working on melodies with them for months now and today we had a breakthrough with this activity.

Question and Answer Improv Activity
A coin-flipping lesson activity

What You Need:

  • A coin (any kind)
    • I used a silver dollar because an unfamiliar coin generates interest
  • One die to generate a key signature
    • I used a blank die and wrote on the sides: C, G, D, F, Am, and ?
    • It would work just as well to use a regular die and assign each number one of those key signatures.

Setup:

  • None

Explanation (to the student):

  • Today we are using a technique that many composers have used, called Question and Answer Phrasing.
  • One of the most famous examples is in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The first part is the question:

twinkle 1

  • We can’t stop here because we didn’t end on the home note (C). It leaves us wondering what comes next.
  • What comes next is the answer:

twinkle 2

  • The answer does end on the home note (C), but that’s not the only thing that makes it a good answer phrase.
  • Note that the question is exactly two measures long. The answer is also exactly two measures long.
  • Note that the question uses quarter notes and half notes and it likes to repeat the quarter notes.
  • The answer continues that rhythmic pattern and the use of repeating notes. This is what makes it a good answer. If we didn’t do anything like that, it would be as if I asked you, “What’s 7 plus 2?” and you said, “Sharks!” That answer doesn’t go with that question.
  • We want our answer phrases to go with the questions, so they need to be the same length and use similar rhythms, articulation, or note patterns. Above all they need to end on the home note.

How to Play:

  • The first person flips the coin. If it lands on heads, the flipper should then improv a question phrase. The other person will then improv an answer. If it lands on tails, the other person should improv a question phrase, and the flipper should then improv the answer.
    • The question should:
      • Use C major. Do not end on C.
      • It should have definite rhythm and either one full measure, or two full measures.
    • The answer should:
      • End on C.
      • Be the same length as the question and fit in stylistically. Be as lenient as you want here.
  • Repeat with the other player flipping the coin.
  • When the student has the hang of it, you can add a wrinkle. Use the die to determine what key signature the melody should be in. (Even some of my younger students can handle this. Just show them where to put their hands and tell them to stick to just the five notes their fingers are on.)

 

Variations:

  • To make it easier:
    • Stick with one measure only and stay in C major.
    • Count out loud if you need to.
  • To make it harder:
    • Change the time signature.
    • Make the phrases longer.
    • Require them to move beyond a five finger pattern.